In 1979, director Ridley Scott took the genres of horror and science fiction by storm with his groundbreaking film Alien. As is often the case with runaway successes such as this, a sequel followed. However, unlike Alien – Aliens was to be an altogether different kind of beast.
After the success of Alien, producer David Giler declared in 1979 that production house Brandywine were intent on making a sequel. Initially having the full support of 20th Century Fox’s president Alan Ladd Jr, that year Ladd left amid Fox’s transition to new owners. The new management at Fox had no interest in the sequel. In the meantime, Giler and partners Walter Hill and Gordon Carroll sued Fox regarding the disbursement of the Alien profits after reneging on Ladd’s promise. The subsequent lawsuit would not be settled until 1983. By this time, Fox had once again acquired new executives that were more interested in continuing Alien as a franchise. Giler pitched the project to the new management as a cross between Hill’s Southern Comfort and The Magnificent Seven.
Enter James Cameron
While the producers sought a writer for the proposed sequel, Development executive Larry Wilson came across James Cameron’s screenplay for The Terminator. The screenplay was passed on to Giler, the general feeling was that Cameron was the man for the job. Giler approached Cameron, who was completing pre-production of The Terminator at this time. A fan of Alien, Cameron was interested in helming the proposed sequel and began work on a concept for Aliens. Cameron produced a 45-page treatment in just 4 days. Fox management once again put the film on hiatus. The pitch was met with mixed feelings and cold feet that Alien had not generated enough profit to warrant a sequel.
Filming of Cameron’s The Terminator was also delayed by nine months at this time. Due to its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger filming Conan the Destroyer, production was delayed. This was a serendipitous turn of events allowing Cameron additional time to write a script for Aliens. While still filming The Terminator, Cameron wrote 90 pages for Aliens. Even in its unfinished state, the work piqued the interest of Fox’s new president Larry Gordon. Cameron was told that if The Terminator was a success, he would be able to direct Aliens. Bringing aboard Gale Ann Hurd to produce, The rest, as they say, is history.
Express Elevator To Hell: A Change Of Approach
Where as the original Alien is oft quoted as being a “haunted house in space”, Cameron’s approach for the sequel was to be something entirely different. The extra time Cameron had been afforded to work on his treatment for Aliens had been well utilised. The story he came up with took the series in a brave new direction.
Ellen Ripley has been drifting in space for some time after the events of the first movie. To be more precise, Ripley has drifted through space for 57 years. Picked up in her EEV by Wayland-Yutani, the ever-present, shadowy “Company”, Ripley’s tasked with returning to LV-426, now a terraformed colony. All communication with LV-426 and its inhabitants has been lost. Accompanying a squad of kick-ass colonial marines, they need to establish why contact has broken down.
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Aliens is Bigger, bolder, and much more action oriented than its predecessor. Where as the original was more a traditional thriller, Aliens was to be all out war. Perfectly pacing exposition, slow building suspense and intense action, Cameron certainly knew what he wanted to deliver. From its bombastic James Horner score, to its groundbreaking Stan Winston effects, This is how a sequel is done right.
Cameron now had his film and a $18 million budget, he now needed to secure his leading lady. Sigourney Weaver was reticent about the project. Weaver met Cameron who explained his ideas, piquing the actors interest in revisiting her character. Fox, however, refused to sign Weaver over a payment dispute and asked Cameron to write a story excluding her character. Cameron refused on the grounds that Fox had indicated that Weaver’s involvement when he began writing his treatment for Aliens. Cameron doggedly insisted in Weaver’s involvement and Fox signed the contract. Weaver obtained a salary of $1 million, a sum 30 times what she was paid for Alien.
Bringing together the likes of Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton, who had all worked with Cameron on The Terminator. They were joined by Paul Reiser, Janette Goldstein, William Hope and newcomer, Carrie Henn to round off the principal cast.
Us & Them
Filmed over the best part of a year at Pinewood studios in the U.K., the production was notoriously fraught. The U.S & U.K crews would frequently butt heads. Notoriously tensions strained over, of all things, was the Great British ‘tea break’ frequently bringing production to a halt. A very much ‘us & them’ attitude punctuated the production. Many of the experienced crew had worked under Ridley Scott on the original film and believed Cameron to be too young and inexperienced to carry so large a film. Tensions reached their peak when Cameron fired D.O.P Dick Bush over negative approaches to schedule and difference of opinion, causing the crew to walk out on the production. Hurd, working her production magic, managed to coax the crew back. With such a pervasive atmosphere, it is a wonder the film turned out as well as it did.
Praise has to be given on the magnificent sets that were built. Production converted part of a disused power station in Acton to become the alien nest. An interesting piece of trivia, the set that was used for the atmosphere processor was reused a few years later as The Axis chemical factory in Tim Burton’s Batman. I was never aware of this until recently and must confess to geeking out a little.
Building A Better Movie
Robert and Dennis Skotak were hired to supervise the visual effects for Aliens. Two stages were utilised to construct the colony on LV-426. Cameron used these miniatures and several effects to make scenes look larger than they really were. Namely through methods including forced perspective, rear projection, mirrors and foreground miniatures. Practical effects supervisor John Richardson (who earned the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for the film in 1987) declared his biggest challenge was creating the power loader. Requiring three months work, The model could not stand on its own, requiring either wires dangling from the shoulders or a pole through the back attached to a crane. While Sigourney Weaver was stood inside the loader, a stunt man standing behind it would move the arms and legs.
Stan Winston designed alien suits were made more flexible and durable than the ones used in Alien to allow more freedom of movement. This new suit allowed the Xeno’s to crawl and jump. Dancers, gymnasts, and stunt men were hired to portray the aliens. 8-foot-tall mannequins we’re constructed to make aliens that stood could have charges detonated to simulate gunshot wounds. Winston’s team also created fully articulated facehuggers that could move their fingers; these were moved by wires hidden on the scenery or the actors’ clothing. This was a remarkably simple trick that allowed the facehuggers to appear more real than ever.
The Queen Lives!
The alien queen provided one of the most difficult challenges to film. A life-sized mockup was created by Winston in the U.S. to act as a dry run to see how it would operate on set. Once the testing was complete, the crew working on the queen flew to England and began work creating the final version.
Standing at 14 feet tall, it was a phenomenal physical creation. The Queen was operated using a mixture of puppeteers, control rods, hydraulics, cables, and a crane above to support it. Two puppeteers inside the suit operated its arms, and 16 additional were required to move it. All sequences involving the full-size queen were filmed in-camera with no post-production manipulation. Let’s just consider that for a moment. The majority of the queens shots, excluding some minimal miniature work, all happened on set. Even by today’s standards, that is remarkable.
Now That Sounds Like A Franchise: The Success Of Aliens
Aliens was released in North America on July 18, 1986. In North America, the film opened in 1,437 theaters with an opening weekend gross of $10,052,042. It was #1 at the North American box office for four consecutive weeks, grossing $85.1 million. The film’s worldwide total gross has been stated as high as $180 million, making Aliens one of the highest-grossing R-rated films at the time. Due to its resounding success, the Xenomorphs would return to our screens again in 1992 for Alien3, helmed by first time director David Fincher. In the subsequent years that followed their would be another 3 Alien movies and a further 2 Alien vs. Predator spin-offs.
The Alien series has proved to be a franchise that refuses to lay down and die. Arguably its real turning point came with the leap of faith taken by James Cameron in taking the series in a bold new direction and expanding upon the mythos of the Xenomorph race in such an inventive and breathlessly engaging way.